Vija Celmins

The Menil Collection

Katia Zavistovski

Vija Celmins, Burning Man, 1966; oil on canvas; 20 x 22 ½ inches; private collection, New York; © Vija Celmins; courtesy Menil Collection, Houston; photo by Eric Baum, New York

House #1, 1965; oil on wood, metal, fur and plastic; house: 7 ½ x 6 ½ x 10 inches; roof: 2 ¼ x 7 3/8 x 10 ½ inches; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Edward R. Broida, 2005; © Vija Celmins; courtesy Menil Collection, Houston

Storm clouds have descended upon the contemporary galleries at the Menil Collection in Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964–1966. Unlike the depictions of gossamer spider webs, parched desert floors and roiling seas for which Celmins is known, this focused selection of eighteen paintings and three sculptures presents pictures of smoking guns, burning warplanes and other images of calamity. This compelling exhibition provides new insights into Celmins’ career, specifically her relationship to the complex historical context from which she emerged as an artist.

During the years 1964–66, the Vietnam War was raging, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law and the Space Race was taking off. Reflecting on media representations of the socially turbulent era, Celmins culled her source imagery from television, magazines and personal photographs. Time Magazine Cover (1965), for example, is an enlarged facsimile of the front of the August 20, 1965, issue reporting on the Los Angeles race riots. Celmins meticulously painted the black-and-white images of looters, an overturned car and billowing smoke, as well as the accompanying text. Rather than duplicating the red of the magazine’s title and frame however, Celmins used nuanced gradations of gray. While the subject matter bespeaks the conflicts occurring on American streets, her muted grisaille palette and precise brushwork distances the viewer from the violence portrayed.

Time Magazine Cover resonates with Andy Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet (1962), which reproduced the cover of a tabloid depicting a plane crash. Coincidentally, Celmins moved to Los Angeles in 1962, the year of Warhol’s first exhibition on the West Coast. Meanwhile, LA artists including Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Joe Goode—on view in the Menil’s concurrent exhibition, Kissed by Angels—were developing a minimal and detached West Coast Pop aesthetic. Though this context undoubtedly informed her work, Celmins developed an artistic vocabulary all her own. Exemplary of the equivocal nature of her practice, the toy-like sculptures on view are simultaneously playful and disquieting. Reminiscent of dollhouses or reliquaries, House #1 and House #2 (both 1965) display painted exteriors depicting fires and guns like the paintings surrounding them. Perhaps referencing Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist fur-lined teacup, the hairy interior of House #2 is whimsical yet suggests impending combustion. The sculpture’s proximity to Burning Man (1966) emphasizes this foreboding. Featuring a figure fleeing a burning car, both enveloped in bright orange flames, the painting is arguably the most dynamic of the show.

A testament to the political climate of the sixties, Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964–1966 also reverberates with current events and calls attention to viewers’ presence in the museum. Sandwiched in the middle of the Menil’s permanent collection of post-1950 art, the exhibition offers visitors sight lines into adjacent galleries. Turning one’s back on Burning Man, one encounters the simmering palette of Mark Rothko’s No. 21 (Untitled) (1949). Celmins’ pictured pistols ricochet off René Magritte’s bleeding rifle in Le Survivant (1950), and one might imagine that a stray bullet has pierced Lucio Fontana’s canvas, Concetto Spaziale (1960–62). The Menil’s presentation of Celmins’ early work incites viewers to ponder the volatility of the subject matter portrayed, both in the museum and beyond.

Katia Zavistovski is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at Rice University.

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